Saint Anselm of Canterbury and the Ontological Argument

Anselm of Canterbury was a medieval philosopher and theologian who lived from 1033 to 1109. He was a Benedictine monk and scholar who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 and held the post until his death. While Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was involved with the feud between the Church and Kings William II and Henry I over the issue of lay investiture. Somehow, during his continual conflicts with the English monarch and being exiled from England twice, Anselm managed to find the time to found the intellectual movement known as Scholasticism and to write a number of influential books. He used reason to make his arguments in defense of the Church’s doctrines rather than the authority of scripture or Church tradition and his motto was “faith seeking understanding”. He did not believe that reason could replace faith but that reason could enhance and expand on faith.

Anselm is most famous for conceiving of one of the oddest arguments for the existence of God in the history of philosophy, the ontological argument. The ontological argument goes something like this; imagine, if you will, the greatest being that could possibly exist. This being must, by definition, be God. Now, a being that did not exist could not be the greatest being that could exist because a being that did exist would be still greater. In other words, a perfect being that could be imagined but that did not exist would not really be a perfect being because it does not exist. Therefore, if you can imagine the greatest being that could possibly exist, such a being must exist. Here is the argument stated more formally in Wikipedia.

Anselm’s argument in Chapter 2 can be summarized as follows:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

At first glance, this seems to be a really silly argument. You could object by saying that you could imagine all sorts of imaginary beings such as unicorns. Imagining unicorns does not make them real. The answer to that is that no one imagines unicorns to be perfect beings.  The fact that unicorns do not exist in the real world is part of their imperfection. The strange thing about Anselm’s argument is that the longer you think about it , the harder it is to actually figure out where it is wrong. There seems to be a flaw somewhere, but where?

Philosophers have been arguing about  this argument for almost a thousand years and have not come to an agreement about it. As soon as one philosopher seems to refute it, another will answer his objections. Descartes, Leibnitz, and Godel all developed their own versions of the ontological argument. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant all rejected the argument. Bertrand Russell accepted the argument when he was young, but rejected it later on, although he admitted that it was hard to actually refute it.

Personally, I don’t find Anselm’s argument to be at all convincing. When I read about it, I feel as if I am watching a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There seems to be a trick there. It doesn’t seem to add up. I doubt very much if anyone was ever converted by this argument.

I am no Kant or Humes, but it occurs to me that this proof is somewhat inadequate in that it doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of God. The greatest being conceived is not necessarily the God of the Bible. He could be an impersonal force or a sort of World Soul as the pantheists believe. He could have created the world and then let it go its own way, as the deists believe. And, it occurs to be that there might be some disagreement over just what the greatest being that could be conceived would actually be like. Still, it is an interesting concept by an interesting man, and anyway, how can you conceive of a perfect being unless there is a perfect being to inspire that conception?

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